Middle Class Sympathy (Apathy) & CoViD19 Pandemic

Normalisation in the Time of Tragedy

We live in a time and under a government that incarcerates its people for seeking donors and trying to save the lives of their dear. In the context of the last decade, it is startling to note that these observations would ever be made and be pondered upon. At the same time, it shouldn’t be surprising given the trajectory of civil and political life in the country from 2014, where the unthinkable has gradually entered everyday public consciousness and carefully reframed the “normal”. History is constantly overwritten by newer bizarres.

It is no more of an epiphany that the country is in shambles. The healthcare system stares at an immense loss, of both lives and of certain direction. The bodies are piling up endlessly. Some of the tragic news make their way to us, through Facebook or Instagram. Now, those mediums too are at loggerheads with the contentious IT laws initiated by the Government. Elsewhere, millions are dying in oblivion, in unreported and marginalized grief. The situation is rife with unprecedented trauma, grief, loss of livelihood, etc. Everyday more and more humanitarian efforts pop up on the internet with good reason, aiming to secure beds, oxygen, funds, medicines for people affected by Covid-19. A mental health crisis looms over us. The government has abandoned us, I have been hearing people say. But was the government ever with us?

Arundhati Roy, in her recent piece in The Guardian referred to the ensuing situation, calling the government’s role, a “crime against humanity”. Reading Roy’s piece, it only becomes clearer that we are no longer living in grey time, as many would argue. Despite the histories of right and wrong and perception, in today’s context, time is as black and white as ever. Throughout, the critics of Hindutva fascism have often struggled to convey the gravity of violence and excesses overseen by the current regime to their endorsers – who have found innumerable justifications. The question now is, where and how do people find justification for a moment in history as this?

The Covid-19 pandemic has only laid bare and provided evidence to the existing apathy of the middle class, now more visible than ever. The latent passions, genocidal attitudes, majoritarian beliefs have only found greater legitimacy and expression. In these times, the continued justification of the government, and rationalisations of the unfolding tragedy lie in an uncomfortable sphere. In this context, Right-wing commentator Swapan Dasgupta’s recent words in an article for The Times of India, “…national image and reputation of its government been battered”, provide evidence to the trend of denial, and a continued approval of authority.

It, therefore, becomes starkly transparent that in people’s values, perceptions and mindsets, there exists no tussle between self-preservation and conscience. Self-preservation has always taken the fore and continually guided people’s motivations. This is nothing new, however. Whereas the staunch proponents of Hindutva such as Dasgupta are embroiled in their own articulations of justification, the middle class constitute a peculiar but not new phenomenon. The pandemic has only clarified the erstwhile latent sensibilities of the middle class. It marks a culmination point yet, of the normalization of violence that has increased over the years.

Sympathy and Apathy: The idea of absolvement

The “middle class”, regardless of their political affiliations, or their “apolitical” stand, need not be “inhuman” to be geared towards the notion of self-preservation. A large part of the self-preservatory behaviour occurs unconsciously and naturally, and exists in every person. This is not too far from Jeremy Bentham’s notion of self-interest. Here however, the danger manifests in the severing of conscience from the realm of self-preservation. Today, the normalization and denial of genocide, violence, rape, willful ignorance toward a healthcare crisis have come to define self- preservation. The coercive illusion etched by the government is as powerful as ever. Yet, people’s consciences are no close to being ruffled in any way. There is no remorse in adopting the governmental reframing of the idea of self-preservation.

This is because of the presence of an imagined conscience. The imagined conscience functions as a tool of absolvement. Here, the absolving of the self from any form of liability is perpetuated by the emotion of “sympathy”. Sympathy arouses the denial of a real conscience and therefore aids fascism in its implicit approval of authority. It triggers a kind of fauxconscience. 

With this, I argue that sympathy and apathy go hand in hand, or as the saying goes, “two sides of the same coin”. Sympathy is a common emotion among the middle class. We are not new to the experiences of anguish and despair of the people around us – when hearing about war excesses, a violent murder, an incident of mob lynching, an acid attack, etc. More often than not, sympathy is interpreted as concern, or a display of one’s humanness when confronted with brutality in the form of experience or reproduced images. The dead bodies floating on the Ganga, for example. This momentary humanness aims at consoling one’s soul, where consoling is meant as an exemption from any further action, or the feeling of not being “guilty” anymore. 

On the other hand, one may view “empathy” as a useful and critical tool that allows one to actually engage and raise pertinent and often uncomfortable questions against the forces of the authority or the majority. This is precisely because, the act of empathy makes the “self” a stakeholder in the experiences of violence, injustice, or brutality. Empathy, therefore, is political. When the self is designated as a stakeholder, political solidarities emerge.

In his 1972 essay, “Photographs of Agony”, John Berger argues that the brutality we are exposed to through images and photographs is discontinuous with the very time we occupy. According to him, those moments of brutality exist by themselves. When people are confronted with these brutalities in the form of images, they interpret this discontinuity as a result of their own moral inadequacy, and the very shock or anger associated with the brutality depicted in the photograph is now directed towards one’s own moral inadequacy. As Berger notes, the self takes precedence. Therefore, one can go on to say that this applies to the larger field of humanitarian engagement and forms the very essence of the critique against charity. People partake in charity to feel good, to “do their bit”. Here, people are not concerned with altering existing political structures and power relations. In activism too, one finds the self at the forefront. 

Importantly, Berger notes that due to this “despair” (or sympathy), the issue is effectively depoliticized. The brutality is now an evidence of a general human condition. The perpetrator or the oppressor is carefully erased. 

The confrontation of the middle class, therefore, with acts of brutality and violence in Modi’s India, especially in the times of the pandemic masks the actual perpetrator, and erases any sort of responsibility of the oppressor. Berger wrote in the context of the Vietnam War in 1972, but his idea is remarkably apt in the Indian context. In India today, as the pandemic ravages lives, the middle class exposed to the terrible state of affairs is overcome by a sensation of sadness and suffering – which may even cause them to make donations or contributions, which while no doubt helpful, fails to identify the actual causes of the violence. The violence finds free rein thus. The sensation of suffering often carries no purpose, and worse, it is short lived. Overcoming this sensation of suffering and “doing your bit” alleviates a person’s guilt and performs no other function other than serving the self.

Now, in these dark times or in Arundhati Roy’s words, in times of a “crime against humanity” – there are people existing in large numbers who fail to recognize the government’s role and responsibility and even go as far to deny it. This sustains governmental discourse and propaganda while discouraging any form of critique that may emerge. This not only signifies the hollowness and inadequacy of “sympathy” but disregards active engagement, and the idea of “confronting oneself”.

In this context, empathy, therefore becomes an important political and psychological tool to combat the “imagined conscience” discourse. It involves the vulnerability of the self – including its own political passions, emotions, viewpoints, all of which are now open to challenge. This is essential for creating solidarities that effectively identify oppressors and promote the interests of the oppressed.

A reference may be made to the films of South Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong, where the idea of empathy is explored by presenting stereotypically “bad” people who arouse no sympathy in the viewer or audience. However, the characters are contemplated and understood through the very social context that shapes them, where “normal people” like “us” play a role in their othering. Eventually, we feel an empathy for the character. Interestingly though, we never feel any sympathy for the characters of the film. His films indicate vis-à-vis their engagement with the viewer, the idea of power relations entwined with the emotion of sympathy. 

The middle-class exists in this power relationship with the poor, or the marginalized sections of society. Their acts of “kindness” that fulfill their own philanthropic interests are inextricably related to the “victims” or the “voiceless”. Ironically, this charity sustains the very actors responsible for such suffering. The self-preservation of the middle class continues, not in the blatant forms expressed to us, but within the framework of an “imagined conscience” – where sympathy performs the function of social engagement and consciousness. This is followed by absolvement and a denial of identifying the perpetrators thereby ensuring the sustenance of a fascist government. Despite the unimaginable suffering that surrounds us, the propaganda and the discourse created by the Hindutva government continues to thrive, and in large part due to the denial of the middle-class.


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Raghu Pratap Written by:

Raghu Pratap is a writer & filmmaker and a student of law at the Gujarat National Law University.


  1. Lotika Singha
    June 28, 2021

    You have explained and articulated the problem with sympathy so well. Will be interesting to know how you see activists get around the issue of doing activism to feel good (like doing charity) — there are clearly activists who have arisen of this to some degree and made a genuine difference. What is it that distinguishes them from feel-good activists? Thanks

  2. Arman
    June 30, 2021

    Every time I hear someone say with a sense of moral chastity that they helped over whatsapp to channel oxygen to those in need, their sense of ‘guilt’ seemed to be eradicated and life for them was back to normal. I could not find a word that described that flicker of hesistancy that erupted for a moment upon hearing that absolvent of guilt. This article provided the ability to frame in words what I felt.

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